The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’

By | 1 December 2013

How can we look at nature and at the same time circumvent our habit of ‘reading’ nature?1 From St. Augustine to Galileo, nature has been repeatedly understood as a cipher—a book to be read and decoded. Hans Blumenberg traces these many instances of the nature-as-book metaphor in The Legibility of the World. The real poetic and ecological problem is what such readability entails. Readability is in itself a potential and propensity rather than a fact per se and thus requires activation. The nature-as-book metaphor, however, problematically makes nature a scholastic endeavour rather than an experiential concern. Reading is not equated with feeling or observing as forms of making sense. Reading can become a reading into, an imposing onto. The notion of the legibility of nature contains the wish for nature to be accessible and usable. But the world we encounter in ‘Leaves of Field’ is disproportionately readable. Larkin’s language runs parallel to the resistance one encounters in the world; it is never fully clear and sensible. Making sense here then does not mean to promise and disclose full comprehensibility. Instead, it makes us aware, it invites us to appreciate and recognise something only relatively. Such vagueness in the reader’s experience of trying to make sense of Larkin’s poem is countered by the text’s extreme precision, making this paradoxical situation of flashlike understanding but inability to ‘grasp’ even more poignant.

In ‘Scarcely On The Way: The Starkness Of Things In Sacral Space’, Larkin delineates two strategies for ecological writing of engaging with this natural resistance when writing about the scarcely abundant givens around us. In his discussion of the appearance of the spear-grass in Wordsworth’s Ruined Cottage (in this case, ‘in the midst of a human ethical crisis’),2 Larkin asks how one can do justice to its thereness or givenness without understanding it as a mere symbol. Firstly, ‘pure description’ of the plant or its presencing in the self is poetically inadequate as a mode of attention – the recognition of the plant’s ‘is’ ‘pay[s] it excess attention’;3 it is impossible to remove all projective meaning from such an approach. The second strategy overwhelms readers with detail, with ‘excess of imaginal appearance’.4 However, evasion of meaning by the presentation of over-abundance is itself dependent on projection. Focusing on horizon (adjusting our perception of the plant, a ‘clearing towards horizon’)5 saves Larkin’s poetry from the overwhelmingness of detail and the pure descriptive approach by delimiting it. Horizon is a continuous ring in that it surrounds me, but it is also finite because it delimits (makes finite) the edge of my perception. Still, any limit for Larkin (and Heidegger) is also another beginning, a tensional point of risk for the finite, a dynamic point of transformation, paradoxically limited and open to both sides. It is here, too, that a scarcity of relation gestures towards horizon.

Larkin’s poetry has the propensity to do ecological thinking without putting forward explicit ethical arguments, thus avoiding enquiries into a work’s utility. The Heideggerian notion of ‘standing reserve’ (according to which technology turns the world, even human beings, into resources) comes to mind, and a Marxist reading of Leaves of Field is not far-fetched.6 Be it section ‘4: Leaves of Root’, with its ‘poling insurrectionary root’7 or the ‘fluctuating asymmetry in tremors across even-waged leaf’8 of the competing economic classes, the arboreal structures in ‘Leaves of Field’ bear the marks of their exploitative or man-made origins.9 Like Heidegger, Larkin is critical of treating everything as a resource, always on ‘stand-by’ for us. Larkin’s poetry situates itself against ‘infinite desire for consumption’,10 and readers’ inclinations to boredom if no immediate ‘use-value’ can be extracted. It makes itself scarce in its density, which is ‘part celebrative-obstructive or speculative-contemplative’, part ‘Hopkins-like compression’.11 And yet, as Heidegger would argue, too, nature can still reveal itself to human beings for its own sake:

The one field (a dia-parity) of unbounded ways to depend, secretions of attachment put some non-ends to the equal of this topic: where field offers to be upheld it proffers at the first origin which dipped between it though not yet lessened into the midst of. Here, from the root outward, comes the narrowest clearing towards horizon.12

‘Leaves of Field’ in particular pre-positions its grammatical leaf-structure by extending across vertical-horizontal planes, from a perspectival post-position that is after phenomenal recognition and the experience of rarity and wonder. Larkin’s grammar of attention thus has an enabling function for both horizon (awareness-limit) and gift (receptivity and ‘possibility of dedication’).13

Larkin answers the challenges of being an ethical subject and writing a good poem by forging attention to the poem’s texture and to ‘attention’ itself as a critical approach. Merleau-Ponty suggests that every tactile-visual experience involves more than one attentionally privileged experience; a bodily synthesis.14 The compressed succession of words and images in ‘Leaves of Field’ registers such multiplicity and resists perceptual habit-formation. Larkin’s lines’ tireless description, their semantic and sonic poise (rarely deviating from leaf, stem, or root), illustrate that carefulness is ethical in that it highlights the otherness experienced of and in the natural, non-human world. Attention enables an engagement with the world outside the subject, away from self-centred (human-centred) concerns. Close reading hooks attention to the details of language in a similar way to how attention is requisite for observing the singularity or particularity, as well as integration into, a wider network of occurrences, patterns, structures, ecologies, and phenomenological appearances whose observation demands time and patience. This is why poetry ‘must use its technique to gesture towards ethical and ontological horizons beyond technique per se, but this it cannot guarantee but requires the active supplement of the reader.’15

Grammatical Relationality

If attention in poetry inspires comparable attention in the non-textual world, such ethical gestures are woven into the structuring grid of Larkin’s lines. Sense-units extend beyond orthographical markers; semantic rhymes relate lines and sections (as illustrated with ‘interleaving’ earlier). In ‘Leaves of Field’, a grammatical and ontological ‘tensionality of relation’16 is articulated in prepositions and prepositional prefixes. Larkin argues that a text makes an ‘ontological offer or promise of relationality’ by gesturing towards the possibility of ontic occurrence; an additive or ‘contributory’ presence; while aware that horizons are not ‘endlessly recessive’ but ‘under conditions of scarcity’: ‘seeking for horizon is not a matter of virtuosity or over-extendedness […] but […] only writable, in terms of a poetics of dedication.’17 Verbs of action are often qualified by spatial prepositions, precise vertical-horizontal coordinates: ‘any lapping out above is what doesn’t weave below’;18 other verbs and nouns are prepositionally prefixed (‘out-dent’, ‘pro-pend’, ‘outpour’, ‘underhides’, ‘down-towering’).19 Because auxiliary verbs, pronouns (except ‘we/us’) and narrative linearity are scarcely present, and because explanatory conjunctions remain minimal, connections are intuited, known by perception. Attention is directed at the granular: ‘a scree of scintillation’, ‘scalar prints on strings of stalk’, ‘array out of leaf particle’ or ‘leaflets’.20 This specificity, generated by abundant description, contravenes as well as supplements the abstraction brought by article-absence. Neither the abstract nor the specific impulse is prioritised.

Larkin’s poetry and poetics forge an attentive perception thematically and grammatically, thus offering the notion of possibility and promise. Relationality of scarcity is ‘often articulated through the use of an optative subjunctive’ (a future wish, desire or prayer, expressing possible fulfillment if in the present tense), as in ‘Leaves Field Horizon’ or ‘Terrain Seed Scarcity’.21 ‘Field’ or ‘seed’ can be verbs in the subjunctive (‘may the leaves field’ or ‘let it seed’) or substantives. Larkin’s grammar, especially the latent subjunctive, focalises his ethics of attention. ‘Think forests adamant with leaves’, with which the long poem opens, looks like an infinitive, imperative, or a finite verb missing a first- or second-person pronoun, but can be reconstructed as a jussive or desiderative subjunctive, not categorical but hypothetical, a situation suggested – or imagined. The subjunctive form is used for speculation, Larkin’s site-specific writing thus ‘‘loco-speculative’ rather than ‘-descriptive’’ as well as ‘promissory’.22 Section five – ‘Leaves Field Horizon’ – locates ‘possibility’ within the scarce, within actuality: ‘a field of leaves is outright, offers […] a piece of its wedged possibility’.23 This final section invites word-order shifting: (the) Horizon Leaves (the) Field or vice-versa? Unlike previous headings (‘Field of Leaf’; ‘Stalk of Branch’, ‘Leaf of Tree’, ‘Leaves of Root’), ‘Leaves Field Horizon’ contains no genitive preposition and thus the relation between the three words is less clearly defined. Do leaves turn the horizon into a field or do leaves collectively constitute an alternative field-horizon elsewhere?

Larkin’s movements around specifically botanical semantic centres are not only textual (dis)play, they are integral to his speculations about place and perceptual phenomena, and the difficulty of expressing these. Writing elaborate explorations of leaf-shapes and -structures arises precisely out of an understanding of the impossibility of stating ‘facts’ or asking to ‘save the planet’. ‘Leaves of Field’ demonstrates ethical responsibility in trying to accommodate a poetic form that is innovative and acknowledges its removed involvement in the matters with which it is engrossed, a widespread habitual attention deficit to nature and to forms of reading. Having said that, Larkin’s oeuvre creates its own habit-formations in its esoteric semiotics and semantics to which a reader has to grow accustomed. Once familiar, new reading practices can be learned and applied to other texts. The form of ‘Leaves of Field’ is also its argument. Non-accelerative ‘innovation […] enables a poetics of scarcity’.24

  1. Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981).
  2. Larkin, ‘Scarcely on the Way’, p. 110.
  3. Ibid., p. 111.
  4. Ibid., p. 111.
  5. Leaves, p. 51.
  6. Cf. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. by William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), passim.
  7. Leaves, p. 43.
  8. Leaves, p. 53.
  9. See also in the ‘root’ section: ‘Symptoms of leaf support how come to vein-sharing, to branch a body of lignant trust to the harrowing by root suction’ (Leaves, p. 43).
  10. Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift’, p. 50.
  11. Peter Larkin, email to author, 24 February 2012.
  12. Leaves, p. 51.
  13. Larkin, ‘Scarcely on the Way’ p. 112.
  14. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, pp. 148-53.
  15. Larkin, email to author, 22 February 2012. See also: Tilottama Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1990).
  16. Larkin, ‘Scarcely on the Way’, p. 108.
  17. Hardy and Larkin, ‘Less Than, More At’.
  18. Leaves, p. 15, original italics.
  19. Ibid., pp. 15, 13, 13, 13, 17.
  20. Ibid., pp. 13, 21, 31.
  21. Larkin, email to author, 22 February 2012.
  22. Hardy, ‘Less Than, More At’.
  23. Leaves, p. 35.
  24. Larkin, ‘Innovation Contra Acceleration’, p. 174.
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